04 Aug, 2023
Check out our review of Venba to find out what we thought about cooking Tamil recipes for family and navigating immigrant life in Canada.
In Venba, food is used to illustrate the past, present, and future of a Indian Tamil immigrant in Canada. It’s what ties her to her homeland and heritage, as well as to her husband and son. This is not a story to unique to the protagonist Venba, nor to any one of the millions of women who learn to cook from their mothers, and continue cooking for their families.
Food and how we prepare it is the most personal, most essential expression of a person’s culture. Across cultures, recipes and eating habits have been passed down for centuries, like oral traditions that keep adapting to changing circumstances and personal preferences. Venba’s story might seem like a drop in an ocean that spans domestic life world over, and it’s all the more poignant for it.
Venba introduces Tamil food to a broader audience while also enmeshing it within a tapestry of the main character’s life. Emotions flow through cooking, expressing Venba’s many facets – a daughter leaving her mother behind, a wife devoted to her husband’s well-being, a mother bestowing her culture to a conflicted son, and a woman ruggedly navigating the rocky circumstances of immigrant life.
Like the classic Mexican novel “Like Water for Chocolate”, Venba uses recipes to tell the main character’s story. It’s a conceit that suits the video game medium just as well as it did the literary medium. If in literature Laura Esquivel could intersperse a recipe book with a novel, then here in video games developer Visai Games makes you an active participant in the tender act to cooking food for your loved ones.
As Venba tries to get used to life in Canada with her loving husband Paavalan, she also attempts to decipher the damaged recipe book she received from her mother back in India.
The game’s puzzle-like recipe sections have you trying to figure out the right order of preparation to proceed, from what order to put ingredients in, to the nitty-gritty of how to steam idlis properly or adjust the heat for dosas.
If you fail, you can try again as many times as you like, so you don’t need to worry about depleting ingredients or doing the dishes here. The game’s brisk pace also ensures there’s no repetition or mundanity involved in the cooking sections.
Outside of the cooking puzzle sections, Venba is presented as an animated visual novel with the occasional dialogue choice. In these narrative segments, we become privy to Venba and Paavalan’s life in Canada, and we witness the childhood and coming-of-age of their son, Kavin.
There may not be a lot of interactivity, but Venba holds your attention throughout, thanks to well-directed and well-written domestic scenes. Not once through the game’s 1.5-hour playtime did I feel distracted, and that’s perhaps more important than interactivity for interactivity’s sake.
But beyond all this talk of interactivity and puzzles, beyond the storytelling and craft that’s gone into the game, I was awed by the sheer authenticity of what I played. Unlike work looking ‘in’ from the outside, Venba is a deeply personal, deeply introspective game borne out of first-hand experiences.
It seeped under my skin to present an experience I’ve never considered before.
It must be understood that for us players from the ‘Global South’ (or the ‘Third World’, whichever term you prefer), we are simply used to not seeing these stories, these voices, and these motifs in an industry that is perceived to be the domain of a handful of (mostly Western) cultures.
To see a story that is so unapologetically Tamil, so unwilling to make concessions – from its soundtrack to its language – makes you wonder if perhaps this is how ‘First Worlders’ experience games that are catered to them.
Feelings of both liberation and vulnerability arc over the skin, making you wonder about the power of your own voice, in the truth of your own experience.
So somewhere in the sumptuous dinner spread of the murukkus, dosas, idlis, oothappams and biriyanis, Venba pops a flare that will perhaps lead many other aspiring artists and storytellers out in the open, where they can be seen and heard.
Developer: Visai Games
Country of Origin: Canada
Publisher: Visai Games
Release Date: July 31, 2023 (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Switch)
This review of Venba is based on a copy of the game provided by the developer. The PC version of Venba was played for this review.
Thank you for reading our review of Venba! Already playing the game? Be sure to check out our walkthrough, which covers all the recipes in the game!
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